Limits of friendship explored in adaptation of Jennifer Johnston’s WWI novel

Anthony Delaney and Ryan McParland in How Many Miles to Babylon? at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Anthony Delaney and Ryan McParland in How Many Miles to Babylon? at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast

THEATRE REVIEW: How Many Miles to Babylon? @ Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Londonderry author Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon? is an incredibly moving novel about friendship, class distinctions and the suspension of ethics occasioned by war, in this case World War I.

Here two close friends in a now bygone Ireland, the ‘peasant’ Jerry - a riot of wit, warmth and good fun, and the middle class Alec - raised in a repressive household, are pitted against each other on the battlefields by distinctions of rank and military duty.

This adaptation of Johnston’s work by Alan Stanford is stylishly produced and brings into stark focus how class often defined who perished and who survived this brutal war. This production was set on a revolving floor that for me worked well (despite technical glitches) as suggesting the circular motions of history, where conflicts repeat and class disinctions remain worryingly entrenched.

It also gave a sense of a shifting and turbulent moment in time, when forces beyond individual control sealed the fate of many. Ryan McParland was full of charisma as the funny, often drunk, singing Jerry, who actually possesses a wisdom that outreaches the middle class Alec’s home schooling.

Anthony Delaney played the latter character with a wide-eyed innocence and quiet naivety that was touching, especially when set against Jerry’s deeper sense of the real world. Together they sip poteen, watch swans on a nearby lake, talk about horses and what it might be like to be with women.

But when they meet on the battleground everything shifts, darkly.

Despite problems with pacing and moments when the story lagged - it is always deeply challenging to give a novel dramatic form, to siphon all its beauty and meaning into snappy dialogue and well-paced action - I felt this adaptation worked very well.

The harrowing ending pondered the limits of friendship and how, in conflict, self-preservation is set above all.

How Many Miles To Bablyon? is at the Lyric, Belfast until May 24.